I arrived at Beijing West Railway station a little over an hour before my train at 2:00 p.m. Built in 1996 and expanded in 2000, the railway station is the second largest in Asia, serving up to 400,000 people a day. It was very busy when I arrived.
China's railway network served nearly 3 billion passenger rides in 2016, a figure that has increased by about 10% each year. It's little surprise. The nationwide system covers 15,500 miles, a figure made more impressive when you consider the first line was built in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics.
China's first high-speed rail line was a single 70-mile demonstration line built specifically for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The country has set aside $550 billion in its current five-year plan (2016-2020) for expanding China's railway system, with an emphasis on high-speed rail.
The massive development plan hasn't all gone smoothly. The country's top economic planning agency found that many cities and provinces were building far too expensive and ostentatious train stations far from city centers in an effort to get in on the development extravaganza, Beijing-based media company Caixin reported earlier this month.
One railway expert told Caixin that local governments have been developing the stations far from city centers in the hopes that the facilities, which they want to link with the high-speed rail, can boost development and real-estate prices.
I had bought my rail ticket on CTrip, China's top e-travel agency. But for some reason, you still have to pick up your ticket in person, which requires navigating to the ticket lines and finding the one counter designated for English speakers. If there's one aspect of the high-speed rail system that could be improved, it's ditching hard tickets for e-tickets. But, knowing China's obsessive adoption of mobile phones and QR codes, I'm sure it won't be long.
To enter the station proper, you have to present your ticket and passport (or Chinese national ID) and put your bags through an x-ray machine and step through a metal detector. All that security happens right at the entrances, which gives a nice peace-of-mind considering recent terror attacks in transit hubs across the world.